Oregon water regulators want to raise fees for water rights transactions by nearly 16 percent over four years to avoid processing slowdowns for irrigators.
The Oregon Water Resource Department's request to state lawmakers, House Bill 2295, would mark the third such increase since 2009.
Some groups representing irrigators are uneasy about the proposal, particularly in light of another bill that would impose a new $100 management fee on every water right in Oregon.
Under H.B. 2295, a transaction fee increase of 15.88 percent would be phased in over four years and a sunset on previous hikes — set to expire this year — would be eliminated.
If the fee schedule reverted back to 2009 levels, OWRD would have to cut 5.5 full-time positions, effectively extending the time that irrigators must wait to develop or transfer water rights, said Tom Byler, the agency's director.
The increase is also necessary to maintain OWRD's dam inspection program, which oversees roughly 900 large structures, he said. "These are all very important functions for the agency."
Fees must be raised just to keep these services at current levels due to climbing expenses for salaries, benefits and retirement plans for state employees, Byler said at a Feb. 13 hearing of the House Committee on Energy and the Environment.
The Oregon Water Resources Congress, an irrigator group, wishes that fee increases wouldn't occur so frequently but nonetheless supports HB 2295, said April Snell, its executive director.
The Oregon Association of Nurseries also testified in favor of the bill.
"Water transfers are a big part of how we do business," said Jeff Stone, executive director of OAN. Nurseries typically rely on water rights transfers when they expand production onto newly bought or leased property.
Water for Life, an irrigator group, is concerned about the rate at which costs are growing, said Richard Kosesan, its lobbyst. "Water for Life is not enamored with the fee increases."
The Oregon Farm Bureau is neutral regarding HB 2295 and won't oppose the hike as long as another piece of legislation — House Bill 2706, which imposes the $100 management fee on water rights — isn't passed, said Mary Anne Nash, public policy counsel for the group.
The cost of processing water rights transactions is currently split evenly between water users and OWRD. The Farm Bureau wants the agency to continue shouldering half the expense instead of shifting more of the burden on irrigators, Nash said.